When people talk about standards in school, they’re generally talking about curricular, or academic, standards – a standard set of skills, concepts, and knowledge that should be taught to all students (or at least all students within certain geographical or political area).
Here’s a great summary of standards. (please read)
Standards are a way to be fair and hold all students accountable to learn what we, as a society, believe is important for them to learn.
One obvious reason for having standards is so that teachers know what’s expected of them and their students. Another reason is so the rest of the society, parents, higher education, employers, etc. all have a good understanding of what our children are expected to learn. It’s also a way to be able to compare the performance of one school against another (or to compare the students at different schools). Fourth, it’s a way to hold schools accountable for teaching our children the things we believe are important for them to learn (as long as you agree with the chosen standards).
The standards imply that we won’t allow some students (e.g. from lower income areas) to get through the system without learning what’s important for them to be successful in life.
In the US, each state has a Department of Education, and each has developed their own standards over the years. In my own state of Iowa, for example, there is the “Iowa Core” – the core set of standards that all Iowa students are expected to learn.
More recently in the US, a set of standards has been developed known as the Common Core State Standards (or just “Common Core”, or CCSS). It specifies standards for mathematics and English language arts. This effort was educated by the work done in the various states. Most states (including Iowa) have since adopted the Common Core into their practices (such adoption was entirely optional). The Iowa Core now includes the Common Core.
There’s been much debate about specifics of implementation – funding, making sure teachers and educators have the necessary skills, standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, etc. However, I definitely appreciate that there are standards and I think the process of their development (involving grants from non-profit organizations, and input from industry and educators) was sound.
Standards are a good thing.